A tribute to Afghanistan’s courageous women fighters

Afghan girls and women have fought hard for the right to learn. Photo credit: Children in Crisis

Afghan girls and women have fought hard for the right to learn. Photo credit: Children in Crisis

Afghanistan seems an unlikely place to find stories of women’s leadership and political power, even after the tremendous progress made over the last decade to restore women’s rights. However, even amid massive current national uncertainties, women’s rights organisations like the Jalal Foundation are successfully challenging discrimination and violence against women - although they also fear a reversal of their hard-won gains with the new government and withdrawal of international troops.

The roll call of outstanding Afghan women leaders is impressive and their activism is a powerful symbol of hope for the country. They include (among many others) Fawzia Koofi – left out in the sun to die as a baby and going on to run for president in the 2014 elections. Azra Jafari – Afghanistan’s first female mayor – who says that after massive resistance, she succeeded in winning respect from male members of the community for her work to improve living standards in a poor rural province which had virtually no infrastructure. And Dr Massouda Jalal, Afghanistan’s first female presidential candidate in 2004 and former Minister of Women’s Affairs, who through the Jalal Foundation has succeeded in uniting over 15,000 women and men in activism for women’s rights, representing 1,280 women’s councils and NGOs.

To appreciate the courageous stance these women are taking, Amnesty International’s Real lives feature is a chilling reminder of Taliban brutality towards women activists. Of Amnesty’s three strategic priorities in Afghanistan, one is to protect defenders of women’s rights. Horia Mosadiq, Amnesty International’s Afghanistan Researcher, and herself a female Afghan campaigner, explains: “Women activists in Kabul are playing the role of ‘gatekeeper’ for women across Afghanistan - they speak English, have access to computers and internet, and can tell the world what is happening. The reality for women activists living and working in insecure provinces and outside Kabul is very different – they don’t have many of these opportunities, and they face a completely different level of risk.”

The world must know about the many atrocities committed against women to keep up international pressure and support. But too much negative reporting means that the considerable pressure for change within Afghanistan is not understood, therefore potentially undermining international support for the country.

A young blogger and English teacher in Kabul - Yosuf Warastah - tells me of his frustration with Afghanistan’s poor international image.  “People shouldn’t judge Afghanistan by the gossip or the media or politicians. I have read a lot of untrue stories about Afghanistan and also experienced inhumane treatment abroad just because I am an Afghan. Yes, it’s true that the country is full of problems and any Afghan can give you a long list. But there has been so much progress. There has been an explosion in the number of people wanting to study in the last decade and there are now 10 million students in schools and universities. People realise the value of education and they want to learn. Nearly 7 million people voted in the election – that’s a real achievement for Afghan people, as there was a lot of fear. Democracy does not come easily. To have a free and democratic society, we need to pay the price.”

These are major achievements: primary school enrolment shot up from 21% in 2001 to 97% in 2011 [World Bank], with girls’ education - formerly banned - now encouraged by the government. Afghanistan now has a thriving telecoms industry and growing community of internet users and civil society activists. The defiant pictures posted online of traditional Nowruz celebrations (formerly banned under the Taliban) speak to confidence in Afghan cultural identity and a degree of freedom of speech. So do the stories of rural demonstrations against President Karzai, with some communities turning out with traditional lamps and grass mats to challenge the president and demonstrate his powerlessness to bring tarmac roads and electricity in his 13-year rule. But most of all, Afghans themselves have spoken loud and clear through the ballot box – 7 million people risked their lives to vote and the international community owes them its continued support.

But the prospect of a Taliban resurgence casts a dark shadow over the country. “We are waiting for the future” says Yosuf.  “There’s a lot of gossip about post-2014 and re-Talibanisation.” Last year, Dr Jalal wrote:  “As the departure of the international security forces approaches, each day turns every bit of hope into desperation for advocates of Afghan women’s rights. The gains on women’s rights during the past twelve years are in danger of being challenged and overturned by policy makers who are un-enlightened about international standards of human rights. The future is likely to see once again the use of religion as an instrument of extreme gender based oppression in Afghanistan.”

For the radical Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) the withdrawal cannot come soon enough: "There are three enemies in this country: the Taliban, the [former mujahadeen commanders] and the Karzai government, and foreign troops. All three of them commit crimes against our people. When the foreign troops go, we will only have two left to deal with."

RAWA entered the international limelight when it released video footage of the first Taliban execution of a woman in Ghazi football stadium in Kabul in 1999. While the stadium has been fully renovated to reflect the country’s new beginning, the threat of re-Talibanisation is real. The Taliban still have tremendous power in Afghanistan. The BBC reported that Afghan leaders estimate the Taliban receive £65 million annually from taxing poppy farmers and drug traders - many see the withdrawal of the US and allied troops as leaving the country wide open for Taliban resurgence.

The Jalal Foundation has repeatedly denounced national and international attempts to negotiate with so-called ‘moderate Taliban’ saying: “Our leaders do not see that the reason the Taliban is so obsessed with women’s oppression is because it is the key to the inter-generational perpetuation of their control.” The Boko Haram schoolgirl kidnapping in Nigeria is a vivid reminder of this. What we know about the powerful benefits of girls’ education and women’s empowerment apply equally in reverse: oppress women and deprive them of education and voice, and you oppress a nation.

Dr Jalal explains that even as an educated leader, “I am not any different from any other Afghan woman - I often experience ridicule, insult, intimidation, denial of rights, and restrictions in my movements. I cannot debate openly with men without the society feeling uncomfortable about my guts and tenacity. We need to transform the thinking of the current and next generations to see that the status of women is a barometer of social progress. If we cannot make this happen, women professionals and leaders will continue to function with invisible ‘shackles’ and a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.”

The foundation has maintained a diplomatic stance in relation to government while continuing to push for change, but others have been more outspoken and subsequently shut out of the negotiations. Malalai Joya – another extraordinary female activist – was expelled from parliament in 2007 after interrupting the constitutional process to accuse the Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) of harbouring warlords and criminals. She continues to be an outspoken critic of the government (facing multiple assassination attempts) and has denounced the 2014 elections as sham due to Afghan corruption, US manipulation and the continued presence of warlords in the parliament.

The Jalal Foundation maintains a robustly optimistic outlook, determined to deliver improvements to the lives of Afghan women within the complex and volatile political landscape. Among their achievements are training programmes to improve women’s employment opportunities, from literacy, English, IT, leadership and political participation. They produce a weekly newsletter on democracy and human rights with a readership of 10,000, and secured 1,000,000 male and female signatories to a statement of zero tolerance to violence against women. These are major wins in a country where the fight for recognition of women’s rights is an ongoing battle.

Most recently, the Jalal Foundation was among the women’s organisations that successfully prevented enactment of a new Criminal Procedure Code which would prohibit a defendant’s relatives from testifying against him. In a context where domestic violence and ‘honour’ crimes are the greatest threat to women’s safety, this law would have effectively annulled legal protection for women victims of violence – a massive retrograde step.

The foundation’s ambitious plans include a women’s radio station to raise awareness about women’s rights and tackle Taliban propaganda (now more sophisticated and widespread as Taliban embrace modern media), mass training for young women to improve employment prospects and continued advocacy at the highest levels to keep the concerns of Afghan women at the top of the national and international agenda. It is not an overstatement to say that the hope of Afghan women is in their hands.

But right now they are still waiting for their future. Jubilant celebrations of the unprecedented election turnout have been replaced with anxiety that the delays in confirming the president will fuel political and ethnic divisions. As troops depart, Afghan activists fear the departure of foreign aid investment. According to Horia Mosadiq “Too much funding has been linked to military presence. Afghan NGOs are already seeing a decrease in NGO funding and government projects are left stranded”. When the political dust has settled, Afghanistan desperately needs vibrant civil society organisations like the Jalal Foundation to challenge conservative elements within Afghanistan’s parliament and champion the rights and development of its people. Let’s support their inspirational work.

Naomi Rouse, girls’ education consultant